the frogs are incredibly loud here by Sean Lovelace
the frogs are incredibly loud here by Sean Lovelace
Softcover, 38 pages
A rose is a rose is a rose, Gertrude Stein informs us, but a rose is also Velveeta. Sean Lovelace knows. Velveeta, after all, by virtue of being a “Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product” lacks “a standard of identity,” as Lovelace points out in the first epigraph to his remarkable flash fiction collection the frogs are incredibly loud here. Just as language can never fully capture identity, or the Ding an sich (I’m thinking of Shakespeare’s rose, no matter what we call it, pleasing the olfactory apparatus), and just as a signifier as simple as “rose” eventually evokes much more than the signified (such as related emotions and ideas), Lovelace, pushing beyond Wallace Stevens, investigates both ideas about the thing and the thing itself. Such a heady project in Lovelace’s hands is anything but dry and inaccessible, though. Page after page offers startling images and turns of phrase, frequent humor, and captivating layers of meaning – rewarding both a quick first read and careful attention while rereading.
For example, in “Advice (with Commentary on Cows)” we get right down to the thing itself signified by the word “hamburger” when a little girl bemoans the fact that “‘Hamburger comes from cows. People kill the cows and they slice them up into circles and then they eat the circles.’” If the adage “it’s funny because it’s true” reflects reality, part of the comedy here derives from thinking of hamburgers in terms of what they actually are, dead cow circles. The fact that restaurants sell “hamburgers,” not “dead cow circles,” brings us beyond the thing itself to ideas about the thing. Indeed, in such a case, language does not simply fail to replicate the thing; it is purposefully employed to replace the thing with more appealing associations. Language, ostensibly developed from the human need to transfer meaning from one mind to another, actually obstructs clarity. Though exploring such linguistic truths can be fun as well as funny, there also exists a note of sadness. Readers cannot help but feel sorry for the girl as she is horrified by the depth to which language has failed her: “ ‘They made me eat cow circles but I didn’t know what it was […] I didn’t know… […] I ate cows […] I just didn’t know about the circles.’ ”
In the same piece, which is the third piece in the book, Lovelace integrates a nod to Stein with “the cow is the cow is the cow.” This reference confirms readers’ growing understanding of Velveeta, and by extension, the nature of language itself. It may be cliché to bring in the idea of trusting the reader (just as it may be cliché to point out clichés in order to employ them), but it must be said that Lovelace’s trust in the reader is refreshing. Instead of explaining (and thus deflating) his intent, Lovelace leaves readers to grapple with what Velveeta actually is in his text from the first line of the first piece: “Two men in splattered white coats are slaughtering a Velveeta. It screams and / screams and screams.” I’m not sure what a Velveeta scream sounds like, but by the third “screams” I could almost hear it – I moved beyond the “something horrible is happening” that “screams and screams” has come to mean and returned to the actual sound of a scream, which is what the word originally indicated but no longer automatically does as it has become cluttered with connotations – just like, as Stein explains, “in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years” because the repetition pushes readers beyond the religious and amorous baggage the word has accumulated and back to the idea of an actual rose.
Despite the screaming and the slaughter, some sort of Velveeta creature is inherently humorous, and readers carry this conceptualization to the second section of the piece, assuming that the Velveeta in the lines “In the field are radishes, a / purple tent with a red cross on its roof, and further off a Velveeta” is this same bovine-or-swine-morphized Velveeta. However, just as readers begin to think they correctly ascertain what Velveeta is, Lovelace expertly undermines the expectations he has just created in the first two sections with the third section: “I kiss Sara’s fingers. The skin is shiny from the spoon factory… / / ‘I’m sorry,’ she says. ‘I do love you. But I’ve given Bobby my Velveeta.’ ” Sure, Velveeta could conceivably still be a form of livestock, but the context points more readily to a concept like virginity, especially because that shiny skin recalls the appearance of the “pasteurized prepared cheese product” itself so that the Velveeta is somehow a part of Sara. When the speaker’s Velveeta “tumbles out of [his] shirt pocket” in the next section, it certainly cannot be the aforementioned strange creature, which reinforces the perception that Lovelace’s Velveeta shape-shifts (similar to the way actual Velveeta can melt and assume different forms). Now, readers question their assumptions about that Velveeta in the second section as they realize it could be most anything. In the last section, Velveeta is a treasured toy that can be snatched away and given back. Thus, by the end of the first poem, readers can connect the absence of “a standard of identity” from the epigraph to the way Lovelace assigns ever-changing meanings to the word Velveeta, which is itself a signifier for a slippery and inconsistent substance.
Interestingly, Lovelace doesn’t simply copy Stein but with cows and screams and Velveeta instead of roses. Whereas Stein repeated an overused signifier in order to free it from its associations and return it to its initial signified object, when Lovelace repeats the signifier Velveeta, he divorces it from its original meaning and brings forth a different signified object or idea each time. Indeed, as he states in “Nine Translations of Mirlitonnades by Samuel Beckett (With Quotations of Judy Garland),” “Velveeta causes anything to be something to be anything so / that, let us say, one both is and is not (translation by Sara),” which encapsulates the way Lovelace manipulates the signifier Velveeta until it concurrently means both anything and nothing. Incorporating the idea of translation adds a compelling complexity to Lovelace’s exploration of language; if meaning is difficult to pin down within a single language, which, like the Velveeta described in “The Naturalist,” is in an “incessant state of change,” then shifting between languages often creates even more distance between signifier and signified.
Thanks to its malleable properties, as well as its blend of natural and artificial components, Velveeta can fill that liminal space between naming and what is named. In fact, Lovelace introduces the idea of liminal spaces with the second epigraph to the book: “Don’t mess with Mr. In-Between,” but he artfully leaves it up to the reader to discern the link. I also admire Lovelace’s use of flash pieces, that liminal form slipping back and forth between prose and poetry, to examine liminal spaces because, as Alexander Pope puts it, “the sound must seem an echo to the sense.” In other words, form should buttress meaning, and it certainly does in the frogs are incredibly loud here. Why frogs, though? If Velveeta is the human-made symbol for the liminal, frogs, with their amphibious ways and bodily metamorphosis, are natural liminal symbols. The two blend in “Balcony” when the speaker notes “The frogs are incredibly loud here, Dad […] They screech yeell-ow, yeell-ow.” Such a relationship between frogs and Velveeta is fascinating, and I appreciate the way Lovelace sets readers up to discover it without spelling it out for them. Language may ultimately fail to accurately capture and transmit meaning, but Lovelace has managed to successfully utilize language to make all that is liminal sound like frogs and taste like Velveeta.